Thursday 26 January 2012

Eliza Acton, The First Domestic Goddess

Eliza Acton, The First Domestic Goddess

I will admit, that if I have a cookery heroine, it is Hannah Glasse, who wrote and cooked during the middle of the 18th Century and had her volume, The Art of Cookery published in 1747. But next on that list has to be Eliza Acton, who wrote her Modern Cookery in 1845.

Acton's book was the model on which later writers (most notably Mrs Beeton and Francatelli) based their cookery books (indeed 150 of Acton's recipes find their way into Beeton's book).

Eliza Acton was one of the first modern writers to direct her recipes at the ordinary family (by which read the servants of middle class and lower middle class families) rather than at professional chefs.

But what makes her book stand out is the readability of the prose and that the list of ingredients and cookig times are separated out of the main text and presented at the end of the recipe. She created the template for the way that modern recipes are presented.

Of course, not all the recipes are hers, she gathered them from friends and acquaintances and presented these in her books as well. But what comes out of the writing and the presentation is that she actually tested and tasted all these recipes and she comments on which ones she particularly thinks are good, expressing this in brackets next to the recipe itself. All in a very understated and English way, of course.

Her book remained in print until 1915 and there are now new faximile editions available as well. But what I cannot unserstand is why this remarkable cookery writer is not so well know. Most people have heard of Mrs Beeton, but few have heard of Eliza Acton.

She was born on the 17th of April, 1799 in Battle, Sussex. She was the eldes of the five children of Elizabeth Mercer and John Acton. She always seemed determined to make her own way in the world and at the age of seventeen, she and a friend opened a school for girls in Claydon, near Ipswich which remained open for four years. Her health was always precarious, and it seems that at the school's closure she travelled to France. She may have travelled for her health and there may have been an unhappy love-affair when she was in France (which is hinted at in her poetry).

What she certainly did was to fall in love with French foods and French food preparation methods. In 1826 she published her volume of poetry, entitled Poems. But Longman, her publisher rejected her second volume of poetry and suggested she try something else, perhaps a cookery book. Eliza seems to have taken the advice to heart and she spent over a decade testing and improving recipes. This led to her Modern Cookery, published in 1845. This was so successful, that a second edition was published that same year, as well as an ammended volume for the American market.

There are many who claim that this is the best cookery book in the English language. It is certainly a seminal volume, and all the other contenders to the title, Mrs Beeton, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson all owe a debt (which most of them acknowledge) to Eliza Acton.

I have a rather precious copy of th 1865 edition in my collection. But what I find truly astonishing is that the text is not available on the web (there is a poorly scanned PDF in Google Books). So, I have decided, as part of my site, Celtnet Recipes' aim to put historic and ancient cookery texts on the web, to add Eliza Acton's volume to the texts already on the site.

Currently you can read a brief Biography of Eliza Acton, and the work to digitize the text has begun. You can find the text of Modern Cookery, with everything uploaded so far at: Text of Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery.

Below is an example recipe from Eliza Acton's book, with a modern redaction.

(Original Receipts.)

     Mix well together ten ounces of fine wheaten flour, and six of flour of rice (or rice ground to powder), the grated rind of a lemon, and three-quarters of an ounce of ginger : pour nearly boiling upon these a pound of treacle, five ounces of fresh butter, and five of sugar, melted together in a saucepan; beat the mixture, which will be almost a batter, with a wooden spoon, and when quite smooth leave it until its is perfectly cold, then add to it five ounces of grated cocoa-nut, and when it is thoroughly blended with the other ingredients, lay the paste in small heaps upon a buttered tin, and bake them in a very slow oven from half to three-quarters of an hour.
     Flour, 10 oz.; ground rice, 6 oz.; rind of 1 lemon; ginger, 3/4 oz.; treacle, 1 lb.; sugar, 5 oz.; butter, 5 oz.; cocoa-nut, 5 oz. : 1/2 to 3/4 hour.
     Or: Flour, 1/2 lb.; ground rice, 1/2 lb.; ginger, 3/4 oz.; rind of 1 lemon; butter, 5 oz,; sugar, 5 oz.; treacle, 1 lb.; cocoa-nut 6 1/2 oz.
     Obs.—The cakes made by them are excellent.

Modern Redaction:

300g plain flour
180g rice flour
finely-grated zest of 1 lemon
25g ground ginger
500ml treacle (molasses)
150g sugar
150g butter
150g freshly-grated coconut

Mix together the flours, lemon zest and ground ginger in a heat-proof bowl.

Combine the treacle, sugar and butter in a saucepan. Heat gently until the ingredients have melted and combined then increase the heat slightly and bring almost to the boil.

Take off the heat them pour over the dry ingredients. Beat well with a wooden spoon unil completely combined and smooth. Set aside to cool completely then work in the grated coconut.

Line a baking tray with greaseproof (waxed) paper and drop the batter by the heaped tablespoons onto it, mounding then slightly (allow room to spread whilst cooking).

Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 160°C and bake for about 40 minutes, or unti done through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before serving.

I hope you enjoyed this recipe. You can learn more about Eliza Acton on the Celtnet Recipes aite, as well as seeing more of her recipes (in original as well as redacted form on the Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery pages.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Foraging for a Wild Greens Gratin

Gratin of Wild Greens

Sunday was one of those wonderfully crisp, chilly, winter mornings that you only get after a hard frost.

December and early Januray have been so mild that many early spring plants are out and even starting to flower. But the frost of the past few days means that they will not last over-long. The weather was so beautiful that I decided to charge-up my camera and go on a bit of a forage.

I ended up with common hogweed shoots (they really would not survive the frost, so I had no qualms in harvesting), some rapeseed greens (I only took a few leaves, as the plant is hardy and would survive), bittercress leaves (typically the only guaranteed winter green) that would act as a seasoning and some very early nettle tops. Enough to fill a small baking dish and to give me my first wild-sourced dish of 2012.

Gratin of Wild Greens Recipe

200g common hogweed shoots
200ml nettle tops
200ml rapeseed greens
4 tbsp bittercress leaves
1 small onion, sliced
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp plain flour
200ml milk
60g Cheddar cheese, grated
150g breadcrumbs
60g Cheddar cheese, grated

Bring a pan of lightly-salted water to a boil, add the hogweed shoots (trim the leaves and wash first). Blanch for 2 minutes then remove with a slottes spoon and set aside to drain.

Add the nettle tops to the pan, blanch for 2 minutes then remove with a slotted spoon, drain, chop and set aside.

Add the rapeseed greens to the same pan, blanch for 2 minutes then drain and set aside.

Personally, I do not mind the bitter flavour of the bittercresses, but if you would like to lessen this taste in them, trim the leaves neatly, blanch these for 2 minutes as well then drain.

Add a layer of onion to your baking dish then place half the blanched rapeseed greens on top. Layer in the common hogweed shoots then add a layer of onions and another layer of rapeseed greens.

In the meantime, make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a pan. When foaming, scatter over the plain flour and work in to form a roux. Cook gently for 1 minute, stirring constantly, then whisk in the milk until smooth. Bring to a simmer then stir in the 60g Cheddar cheese until melted. Take off the heat then stir in the chopped nettle greens and chopped bittercress leaves. Pour into the gratin dish and allow to settle.

Mix the breadcrumbs and remaining cheese then use this to top the dish. Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 200°C and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the dish is piping hot and the top is golden brown.

I served this with a mash of Jerusalem artichokes (from the garden), mixed with carrots and parsnips.

This is a rich, warming dish, ideal for winter.

For all the wild food recipes on this blog, see the wild food recipes page.

Friday 6 January 2012

Sorting Tarragons as Herbs

Information on the Various Tarragons

Culinarily, there are two main types of tarragon, French Tarragon and Russian Tarragon. They are both actually cultivars of the same species, Artemisia dracunculus and are members of the Asteraceae (daisy) family of flowering plants.

French Tarragon is sweet and aromatic, reminiscent to fennel, anise and licorice. In contrast, Russian Tarragon, is not at all fragrant and tastes slightly bitter.

Russian tarragon is closer to the wild form of the plant (originating in Central Asia) and though many recipes state that it can be substituted for French tarragon, this is not really true. Russian tarragon is not really culinarily worthwhile. The only reason it is cultivated is that it is frost resistant and can withstand northern European winters to grow the following spring.

In the development of French tarragon, though the plant's aromatic qualities were much improved, it also became much less hardy. Anwyere there are low winter temperatures, it can only be grown as an annual (unless it is brought indoors or grown under glass). However, I have found that if you take root cuttings, plant these before the first frosts and bring them into the house, they will give you a supply of new plants to place in your garden for the following spring.

If you are looking at tarragon flavour, then an excellent substitute is Mexican Tarragon (also known as Winter Tarragon). This is not acutally a tarragon at all, as the species is Tagetes lucida which is actually a marigold, belogning to the Asteracea (aster/daisy) family. The plant is native to Mexico and the southern USA though it can be obtained as seed from many specialist nurseries. The plant is a half-hardy semi-woody sub-shrub that looks like a spindly marigold (growing to some 50cm) with small brightly-coloured flowers and elongated (often variegated) opposed leaves.

The flavour profile of the leaves is almost exactly the same as those of French tarragon, though stronger and Mexican Tarragon makes an excellent substitute for French tarragon in any recipe (though you should halve the quantities).

Typically tarragon is used for flavouring vinegars and sauces such as Hollandaise and Bechamel. But the mild aniseedy flavour of this herb makes it an excellent addition to fish dishes, chicken dishes (it goes particularly well in stuffings) and even tomato-based stews and sauces.

Below is a classic bean soup recipe using winter tarragon as a flavouring (though it works just as well with French tarragon).

Haricot Bean and Mexican Tarragon Soup

250g white haricot beans
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced
2 tbsp freshly-grated lemon zest
2 garlic cloves, minced
1.6l chicken stock (or strong vegetable stock)
1 tbsp fresh Mexican tarragon (Winter tarragon) leaves, finely chopped (or substitute twice the amount of French Tarragon)
3 tbsp thinly-sliced ham, cut into julienne strips
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Pick over the beans, place in a large bowl then cover with plenty of water and set aside to soak over night.

The following day, drain off all the water and set the beans aside. Add the oil to a large pan over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and fennel. Fry for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown then stir in the lemon zest and garlic. Fry for 1 minute more then stir in the stock.

Add the drained beans then bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for about 60 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Uncover the pot then stir in the winter tarragon leaves (reserve 1/2 tsp for garnish). Now add the ham then adjust the seasonings to taste.

Divide the soup between four warmed soup bowls, garnish with the reserved tarragon leaves and serve immediately.

Notice, in the recipe above, how the tarragon is added towards the very end of the cooking time. This is because the compound that give tarragon its distinctive taste and aroma are very volatile, they disappear quickly if the herbs is over cooked. Tarragon also displays the same problem if it is dried and the dried herb has little of the flavour of the fresh. This is the same problem as encountered with many herbs (except, notably, for celery leaves).

For more information on tarragons, please visit the following pages:

Gernot Katzer's tarragon information page

and as part of the Celtnet Guide to Herbs:
Celtnet Herb Guide Tarragon Page
Celtnet Herb Guide Mexican Tarragon page
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